By Chalsey Gill Anthony
Communications Assistant, Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC)
“At the time I was living in Jamaica, there was no rain for quite a few months. There were very severe water restrictions where we would only receive water once a week,” says Dr. Ayanna Alexander, a medical doctor and public health professional from Trinidad and Tobago.
Dr. Alexander has seen firsthand the devastating effects of water scarcity on the health of her patients. Working in the pediatric emergency department, she observed that children, in particular, were vulnerable to dehydration and gastrointestinal illnesses. “It was very difficult, especially for those younger children who cannot adapt and recover fast from illnesses.” However, she admits that at that time, she did not make the link to climate change.
Dr. Alexander completed an internship with the CCCCC in Belize in March this year, a requirement of the University of the West Indies Climate Change and Health Leaders Fellowship programme, under the EU/CARIFORUM Strengthening Climate Resilient Health Systems in the Caribbean Project.
During her time in Belize, Dr. Alexander shared her perspective as a proponent of CARICOM. “It’s frustrating to see bigger countries with more resources not meeting their reduction goals, but as Small Island Developing States (SIDS), we can use our block to make positive changes. We can’t just sit back and wait for change to happen, we need to be an example for the world. Moving away from a reactive standpoint on health and focusing on social and environmental determinants can make us a healthier and more resilient population,” Dr Alexander said.
The Caribbean is no stranger to the devastating effects of climate change, and the impact on the region’s water resources has been severe, posing a significant threat to public health. Increasingly, frequent and intense storms and hurricanes, rising sea levels, and droughts all contribute to water pollution, contamination, dehydration, and the spread of waterborne diseases.
Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico in 2017 is a prime example of how damaging water supply systems can leave hospitals and clinics without safe drinking water, resulting in a surge of waterborne illnesses that place vulnerable populations at risk of serious health issues.
In addition to hurricanes, coastal flooding and rising sea levels can cause salt water to contaminate freshwater sources, making it difficult for people to access potable water sources. Water scarcity caused by climate-induced dry periods also leads to decreased hygiene and sanitation practices that exacerbate the spread of waterborne and foodborne illnesses. “When water is scarce, farmers have difficulty providing food,” says Dr. Alexander, adding, “We have had instances where farmers have been watering plants with unclean water which increases those potential risks for illnesses.”
The quantity and quality of freshwater sources like surface and groundwater are also being affected, leading to shortages and increased costs to obtain water. SIDS in the region, which rely heavily on rainwater harvesting, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of decreased rainwater availability. Additionally, extreme weather events can lead to power outages, disrupting the operation of water treatment plants and making it challenging for people to access water.
As the scorching sun beat down in Barbados, the island was left in the grip of a severe drought for months in 2019 and 2020. Dr. Adrian Cashman, an expert in water resources management and the chair of the Global Water Partnership-Caribbean (GWP-C)’s technical committee, reflects on Barbados’ severe water shortage. The drought led the Barbados Water Authority to implement community water tanks in remote parishes such as St. John, St. Lucy, and St. Andrew. Dr. Cashman also discusses the psychological impact it had on communities, “The uncertainty of finding water at the communal tank left people unable to wash or shower. Some even had to rely on going to the homes of friends or relatives to get ready for work. It was a daily struggle.”
As the impact of climate change on the Caribbean’s water resources continues to worsen, Dr. Cashman highlights some of the interconnected gaps that the region faces and the need to incorporate climate change predictions into hydrology models to better understand the impact of changing weather patterns. Long-term planning is needed as well as reconsideration of the region’s approach to wastewater management.
Despite these challenges and gaps, Dr. Cashman remains optimistic that solutions can be found. “There has been a growing momentum in the Caribbean to address water management issues and innovative solutions are being developed to adapt to a changing climate,” states Dr. Cashman. “Efforts are also being made to mobilise financing to implement solutions, indicating progress in the region’s water management practices.”
The linkages between climate change, water resources, and public health are clear, and it is crucial to prioritise the safety and security of water for all people in the region.
Most recently, the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) under the European Union-funded Intra-ACP GCCA+ Programme in the Caribbean: Enhancing Climate Resilience in CARIFORUM Countries, installed several water storage tanks across St Kitts and Nevis in schools, health centres, and disaster shelters. Ms. June Hughes, St Kitts and Nevis’ Director of Environment tells us that climate change has made water shortages common in the twin-island Federation. “The tanks provide a plan B and secondary source. Previously, what was happening at schools is that once the water was cut, they would have to send school children home,” says Ms. Hughes “because you cannot operate without water.”
The water crisis in the Caribbean is a significant concern for schools, as shortages can disrupt daily operations and compromise student well-being. By providing alternative water sources, we can protect educational opportunities and ensure safe learning environments. As climate change continues to impact water resources, posing threats to public health, it is imperative that we take action. Let us advocate for sustainable practices, support water conservation initiatives, and actively engage in efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. Together, we can make a difference, safeguard our communities, and preserve our precious water resources for a safer and healthier future.